20 January 2009

On Booker Little and Jazz Mythology

Booker Little and Clifford Brown had much in common. Both were trumpet players from middling cities (Little from Memphis, Brown from Wilmington, Delaware) who played important roles in the development of jazz trumpet, but died before their thirtieth birthdays. Brown's and Little's solos are both studied and transcribed intently by young trumpet players. Both made impressive albums, both as a leader and a sideman, which are among the greatest jazz on record. Both were sidemen in Max Roach's quintet, and both built on the bebop trumpet style of Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro.

Yet while Clifford Brown has been mythologized in The Jazz Tradition, Little remains a surprisingly obscure figure in the history of jazz, known mostly by musicians and aficionados. Why is this? It can't be because Little did not record enough masterpieces. Take a look at his discography, he appeared on Africa/Brass, Percussion Bitter Sweet, and Eric Dolphy's live recordings at The Five Spot. They may not be the most legendary recordings, but they are just as memorable and important to the development of jazz as any of the best Clifford Brown recordings. I would argue the same of Little's solo work, especially the well-regarded Out Front.

I wish I could come up with a better reason, but it seems to me that the answer largely has to do with timing and circumstance. Brown's heyday fits within a neat break in The Jazz Tradition. His first recording with Max Roach, Brown and Roach, Inc., was recorded in August 1954, just a few months before the death of Charlie Parker. Brown's ascent comes just as a the historical arc of jazz is in need of a protagonist. The same cannot be said for Little. Among his contemporaries were Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, two figures who seemingly crowd out all other jazz musicians in some writers' retellings of the history of jazz between 1960 and 1963. Little seems to get lost in the background of jazz history.

But Clifford Brown is not just a lead player during one period of The Jazz Tradition, his personal story is also more easily mythologized. Because Charlie Parker's death stemmed from years of drug abuse, the clean cut image of Brown, who shunned drugs, smoking, and drinking, served as important story in jazz. Brown was kind of a corrective to the surprisingly-prevalent notion among jazz musiciansat the time that herion use contributed to creativity and performance (at least, according to some). This factor is also key in transforming Brown's life into myth; he is the opposite kind of fast-burning flame than Parker, and his story serves as a captivating next chapter following Bird's life and death. Ken Burns uses this dichotomy to much effect in his documentary Jazz.

So for having reasons little to do with their own music in some regard, perhaps, Brown can be mythologized into this jazz martyr, while Little is neglected by history. This fact in itself is an interesting critique of the mythologization of jazz inherent in The Jazz Tradition, and should inspire us to think beyond this master narrative when considering the history and development of jazz.


Alan Kurtz said...

August 1954, you write, was "just a few months after the death of Charlie Parker." Bird died on March 12, 1955, meaning that August 1954 was seven months BEFORE his death. In my opinion, a writer's argument carries more weight if he takes a moment to get simple biographical details correct. Alan Kurtz, jazz.com

David said...

Corrected, thanks for the heads up.

Anonymous said...

Booker Little's improvisations are very complex, as are his compositions. For me he is one of the most complete of all jazz artists: a creative composer, a very skilled instrumentalist and a cliché-avoiding improvisor.

He should have participated on "Free Jazz", "Ascension" and "Out To Lunch" instead of Freddie Hubbard. I'm not alone with that opinion. Most other jazz trumpeters of the late 50's, early 60's sound like clowns compared to Booker.

He was a very kind and humble person, a straight and sober artist who had some humor too. Just look at the cover of "Out Front". When he died, the world lost a true musical genius.